Sunday, August 31, 2014

The Best Laid Plans: Jeremiah 15:15-21, Romans 12:9-21

This morning's texts are Jeremiah 15:15-21 and Romans 12:9-21.

         I love the movie The Lion King. I think I saw it 5 times in the theaters when it came out. The characters are so colorful and alive and the animation is just beautiful. And who doesn’t love Rafiki, right? Rafiki is the shaman like baboon who carries around the big rattly stick and says wise things to everyone. He’s wise, but he’s also a little comedic: just a little bit off his rocker. Rafiki ties the entire movie together. Try to create that movie without the prophetic Rafiki, and it wouldn’t be the classic it is.
            Many books and movies have important prophetic characters who pull it all together. The Lord of the Rings without Gandalf is pretty uneventful. The Matrix without Morpheus just doesn’t work. 
Being a prophet sounds glamorous. Hearing a word from God and getting to share it with the people? Sweet! Getting to travel around to different places and act just a little kooky? Sign me up! Prophets are important! Prophets are chosen! Prophets are cooool!
            Even the history of Israel as we see that prophets are sort of a lynchpin of the stories.
            But there’s a dark side to being a prophet.
If prophets are so cool, why is Jeremiah in such a bad mood in this passage Dorothy read today? Prophets in Israel were not as highly regarded as what we think of as a prophet today. They were usually pretty unloved. Think about it. They are the guys who were called in to live a life of wandering around telling people things they did NOT want to hear. Being a prophet wasn’t all about predicting the future. It was about saying the hard things both through words and through actions: way of life.
Nobody liked Jeremiah and he found out the hard way how difficult it is to fulfill a prophetic calling. A favorite verse of many is Jeremiah 29:11. “I know the plans I have made for you, says the Lord.” We usually use it to comfort or encourage people that God has a plan for everyone, but knowing Jeremiah’s story, it kind of sounds terrifying to me.
Oh, God had plans for Jeremiah, but they were NOT what Jeremiah had expected. Being a prophet for Jeremiah meant taking his idea of what a good plan was, tearing it up into little pieces, lighting it on fire, and throwing it out the window because God had something completely unexpected in mind.
            Prophetic calling didn’t die out back in the day after Jeremiah and Isaiah or even John the Baptist retired. It just started to take on a new shape. If we look at Romans, and especially Romans 12, Paul tells us that we all collectively have a prophetic calling. The Church as a whole has a calling to a prophetic lifestyle. Fortunately for us, that doesn’t mean eating locusts and honey and dressing funny like John the Baptist  or living in a cave like Elijah. But it’s still about a lifestyle. It wasn’t just the words that the prophets of old brought that annoyed people – it was their entire way of living.
            Romans 12 says some hard things. It tells us to show genuine brotherly love to all people. . . even the nasty ones. It’s hard enough to fake being nice to someone we don’t like or who doesn’t like us, but to show genuine brotherly love?
            Rejoice with those who rejoice is often easy enough, but to weep with those who weep? Sorrow is uncomfortable. It’s much more comfortable to try to convince the weeper that everything will be ok than to sit and weep with them. 
            And what about this doozy: Leave the vengeance and the judgment to God. Feed your enemies and let God deal with them. Give them water when they are thirsty and don’t try to take out vengeance. Be kind to all and let God sort out who gets what in the end.
It’s hard to be a prophetic church and fulfill God’s calling. It means leaving our comfort zones sometimes and doing things that aren’t always really popular or desirable. And it doesn’t mean just sometimes. Earlier in chapter 12 of Romans, Paul exhorts us to offer our LIVES as a living sacrifice. Not just our Sunday mornings or a few minutes before dinner, but our entire lives. When Jesus’ disciples left to follow him, they didn’t just follow sometimes. They left everything and their entire lives were turned upside down.
            In his book, “The Spirit of the Disciplines,” Dallas Willard talks about the spiritual lifestyle as being like baseball. If you want to be great in baseball, you can’t just emulate your favorite player when you’re actually playing a game. You have to live baseball. You have to practice every day and eat right and study the game. The Christian life, this prophetic calling to be salt and light in a dull and dark world is no different. We need to practice the a Christ-like lifestyle every day and eat the bread of life and study the Bible. This is not for the faint of heart. Especially when we look at what our passage from Romans has to say about what this calling looks like.
Romans chapter 12 starts off by talking about offering our lives as a living act of worship. While it’s hard, living out a prophetic life as a church is an act of worship. Sunday morning worship together is important. It’s like the baseball game we’ve been practicing for. Sunday morning worship is the culmination of everything we’re practicing and learning and living. It’s where we come together in corporate worship, but that doesn’t mean this is the only place we worship or live out the call of the prophet. Jeremiah was always a prophet. Even when it was hard to be a prophet. Even when he couldn’t seem to do anything but say, “WHY, God!?” We aren’t just Christians when we’re in church. We are Christians always. This is our beautiful act of worship – to offer our lives and all their comfort and discomfort, joy and sorrow, ease and unease – to God as an act of praise.
Evil can be overcome by good, Paul says. This Christian calling, this prophetic lifestyle, this kooky weird way of living that looks like nonsense to people who just don’t get it, it can overcome evil. These things that we want vengeance for, the terrible things people do that make us want to judge them or consider them to be “less” in some way. . . these things aren’t overcome by more of the same. They are overcome by good.
And it’s freeing if you think about it: unloading all the vengeful and judgmental thinking and giving it to God. It’s a big load off to know that it’s not our worry to figure out who deserves what. It’s our worry to love. Just love with genuine brotherly love.
            Please don’t panic. I’m not suggesting that we all sell everything we own and go off somewhere exotic to preach the gospel. I’m not saying that everyone has to hurry up and quit their jobs or school or other things to spend all day doing charity work. If we all quit our jobs and left to follow Jesus somewhere else, there wouldn’t be anyone left to follow Jesus and practice hospitality where we are now.
            It’s not about turning our backs on what we know and love – it’s exactly the opposite. It’s about really looking at what we know and love. It’s about truly experiencing the world around us and really diving into it. It’s about constantly looking around ourselves and really seeing what’s around us – right where we are – and asking, “What’s God up to here and how can I be useful?”
There are many inspiring stories of prophetic calling being lived out in the Pittsburgh area. I was delighted that when I did a google search this week for “Pittsburgh Churches, justice” I came up with scads of articles.
            One headline read, “Youth missions trips from Pittsburgh churches are on the rise.” Now I realize the jury is out on if it does the people in a struggling area more good to send people or money, but if nothing else, short term missions trips change the people going. I can tell you that the moment my eyes were really opened to the great need for justice in this world was during my first short term mission trip to Guatemala in 2005. I’m not alone in that either. Everyone I’ve talked to who has been on a short term mission trip will attest that they came back changed. It doesn’t have to be far away or exotic either. Alexis went to Queens, New York this past summer and came back with a new perspective on hospitality and helping others. 
            A local church women’s association held a celebration of human rights earlier in the month. Their theme was “Through God Our Hands Can Protect.” I like that theme title. It doesn’t claim that people are in charge of protecting. God is the protector. But God uses the hands of God’s people to protect others. We’re the tools for justice.
            In Homewood, a church bought a notorious crack house and converted it into a community center that now houses active youth mentoring programs and helps to encourage young people in the struggling neighborhood. They saw problems in the community, namely, a crack house and bored youth, and they came up with a creative solution that God is working powerfully in.
            In all of these stories, there is hope rather than fear. There is love rather than hate and forgiveness where others would see only vengeance. In seeking the good of enemies and hope in uncomfortable situations, they have created stories that not only touch the hearts of the people they are loving, but have reached the headlines. Others are noticing too and saying, “There is something worth holding onto here.” These people are different.
            Excellence in our Sunday morning worship is important. Certainly when someone is trying to find a family to worship with or some answers to spiritual questions in their lives, they’ll notice if they walk into a worship service that’s halfhearted and boring. But our lives outside these walls matter too.

Our lives as individuals and as families and as a church family matter because we are called to be modern prophets – to live a whole life of love and justice and proclamation of God in our world- through our actions and through our words.

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